Read The Cowboy's Little Surprise Online

Authors: Barbara White Daille

The Cowboy's Little Surprise (6 page)

“Ah, you’re young. You’ll change your mind.”

“I doubt it.”

“Then maybe some young lady will change it for you, the way my Mary did mine. Considering the handful of women we’ve got here in the hotel right now, you ought to find one to strike your fancy.”

Cole laughed. “What are you trying to do, get your granddaughters married off?”

“Might be.” The old man looked thoughtful. “I just wish—” He stared into space.

After a few moments of watching him, Cole frowned. “What are you wishing for?”

“Nothing we need to discuss.”

The statement and his abrupt tone came as a surprise.

“Being hardheaded doesn’t get a person very far,” Jed continued. “You’ll learn that sometime, sooner than later if you’re lucky.”

“I’m not hardheaded. I just know my mind.”

The older man sounded skeptical but didn’t elaborate. He rose from his seat with the baby in one arm. “Think I’ll head into the kitchen and give Paz a turn. She’ll want to hold this little girl, even if you don’t.”

“As I told you, I’ve got enough to do watching Scott. Who knew a three-year-old could be such a handful.”

Jed laughed. “Easy to see you weren’t around much during your nephew’s ‘terrible twos.’ Now, that’s an age for you. We had quite a time of it with Robbie.”

“Did you?” Another of his son’s stages he had missed. “Guess you’ve had your hands full helping out with him since he was born.”

“Me and Paz both,” Jed agreed.

Cole waited, but the older man didn’t add anything. He had responded naturally enough to the comment, though.

After Jed left, Cole sat watching the boys. Scott and Robbie had taken most of the horses, leaving only a couple for Andi’s son, Trey. As the oldest and owner of the toys, Robbie seemed to be in charge.

“What are you doing?” Cole asked. His chest tightened, almost as if he’d held his breath. This was the first conversation he had initiated with his son.

From now on,
that happened would be a first for them.

The boy eyed him without speaking, taking his time with a response. Taking
measure, Cole figured. Robbie didn’t seem fearful or wary. Living here in the hotel, he was probably used to having lots of folks around.

Finally, he said, “We’re playing horses.”

“And what’s that?” Cole pointed to two empty cardboard boxes standing on their sides.

“That’s the corral. The ponies have to stay inside.”

“Why?” Andi’s son demanded.

“So they don’t run away.”

“Why do they run away?” Scott asked.

Robbie frowned. “I don’t know.” After a long pause, he turned to Cole. “Why?”

The boy looked like Tina. Even more, his solemn expression made him think of her in their high-school biology class, where she always took things so seriously. She was especially strict while overseeing experiments that, if not for her, he would probably have messed up.

He didn’t want to mess up now. “Well...maybe the ponies want to find other horses to play with. Or maybe they want to break free of the corral.”

“Do you think that’s why they run away?” Robbie asked.

“Could be. They like to be free.”

That’s what he had wanted. To break free. Free from the constant tension he and Layne lived with while their dad was alive. From the sympathy of the folks—the clueless folks—in town once his dad had passed on. And, almost worst of all, from the never-ending reminders they’d hear from their mom, who just couldn’t let memories of the man die with him.

“Then, no more corral.” Laughing, Robbie knocked over his carefully erected pair of boxes. His wide grin again reminded Cole of Tina and the very few times he’d seen her laugh aloud.

Judging by Jed’s nonresponse a few minutes ago, she must have been telling the truth when she’d said no one on the ranch knew about Robbie’s daddy.

Robbie’s daddy.

She sure hadn’t liked him calling himself that.

She had never wanted him to know the truth.

Years ago, he would never have believed sweet Tina capable of such deception.

He had known she’d been hung up on him all through school, but when he’d started asking girls out, he hadn’t looked her way. She was quiet. Reserved. And so serious about so many things he’d had no plans ever to get serious about. He still didn’t.

He had liked her a lot back then. Sometimes he even dreamed about her. But he knew better than to let himself be tied down. Instead, he’d gone from girl to girl, never getting too involved, never putting his heart on the line. Until senior year.

He’d let down his guard for one weekend, had lowered his defenses long enough to trust Tina. But not long enough to trust himself.

The guards had gone up again, the defenses had been put back in place, and the next day in the cafeteria, he had turned down her invitation to the dance and walked away.

Maybe he hadn’t done it nicely.

All right, yeah, he’d been an ass. A typical, teenaged-male ass.

That didn’t give her the right to cheat him of all these years with his son.

Chapter Six

Once Jed had left the unexpected business meeting in the dining room, Tina’s cousins did most of the talking. Her mind kept wandering to Cole and Robbie. If they were together, she wanted to be there, too.

As soon as she could, she left Jane and Andi and made her way to the lobby.

In the reception area, she saw Jed ambling down the hall toward her from the direction of the kitchen.

Cole barreled through the sitting room doorway. A quick look past him showed all three boys playing happily with Robbie’s ponies. Nothing wrong there.

Yet when she met Cole’s gaze, his narrowed eyes told her she wouldn’t like hearing whatever he had on his mind.

Slipping into her professional role, she stepped behind the registration desk.

By the time Jed joined them, Cole had gotten his expression under control and found a smile. “You know, Jed, I’ve rethought the idea about staying at Layne’s. Considering how early I need to report in here every day, I’ll only throw off her morning routine and probably interfere with Scott’s sleep schedule. I’d like to take a bed in the bunkhouse, after all.”

She froze. She didn’t want him living so close to the hotel, having so much access to Robbie. When Jed shook his head, she could barely hold back her sigh of relief.

“Nope. That won’t work,” he said. “We haven’t got a bed free in the bunkhouse right now.”

She blinked in surprise. They had room for several more wranglers. Why Jed would refuse to put Cole up in the bunkhouse, she didn’t know, but she felt immensely grateful.

Until he added, “But that’s no problem. We’ve got plenty of rooms right here.” He turned to her. “Tina, take care of the man, will you?”

Her heart sank. “But...we’ve never had a ranch hand stay in the hotel.”

“Then maybe it’s high time we did. You know the cowhands are one of the biggest draws on this ranch.” He grinned. “Imagine folks checking in and finding a real, live cowboy joining them for their meals. They’ll get a kick out of it.”

“But...” She stopped.

When she made financial recommendations for the ranch or the hotel, Jed always heard her out. But naturally, as he owned the properties, the final decisions rested with him.

The look of smug satisfaction on Cole’s face said he realized she had no choice.

Jed sauntered down the hall again.

She raised her chin and glared at Cole.

“Is there a problem?” He glanced around the vacant lobby. “It doesn’t look like you’re all booked up. In fact, from what I saw this morning and the other day, you could use some customers.”

“Guests,” she corrected. “And you’re not serious.”

“Why not?”

“You don’t need to take a room.”

“Oh, yes, I do. You heard what I said to Jed about messing up Layne’s schedule.”

“And that was a load of bull.”

“No, it wasn’t. Besides, remember what I told you about her short couch? A few nights sleeping on that were enough to convince me to move over here.”

“You don’t need to do this,” she insisted, her voice strained. “I told you, you can see Robbie.”

“Yeah, you did. But look at the odds. You kept my son a secret from me for all these years. You haven’t even told your own grandparents the truth. How can I trust you to keep your word?”

“That’s ridiculous.
the trustworthy one standing here. I’m the one who doesn’t run from responsibility.”

“Maybe so. But suppose you’d given me the news a long time ago. How do you know I wouldn’t have stayed in town?” He leaned over the counter, pressing his point home. “As of now, I’m staying right here in this hotel. If you won’t check me in, I know someone who will.”

* * *

, Paz, you should’ve seen the look on those kids’ faces when I told Tina to book Cole into the hotel.” Jed laughed and slapped his hand on the kitchen table.

“You were careful, I hope?”

“Well, of course, I was.” He took the baby from Paz’s arms. “After all, I didn’t tell her to give him a room in our family wing, did I? Now, that would have been a dead giveaway.” He looked down at the baby. “Your great-granddaddy’s got more smarts than that, hasn’t he?”

“Tina has smarts, too,” Paz said.

“And plenty of them,” he agreed. He shook his head. “It’s not easy getting anything past that girl. She already questioned me. You’d have thought I wanted to bring a live bull into the hotel, instead of just a cowhand. But my answers satisfied her.”

“And now?”

“Now we sit back for a bit and watch the fun. It won’t do to rush things, or for sure Tina will think something’s up. Cole, too. Although I do need to make a note to see Pete tomorrow.”

Paz was already well into her menu for tonight’s supper, but she looked up from her preparations. “Did you talk to Cole at all?”

“I did. After you left the dining room I tracked him to the sitting room. He tells me he doesn’t want to settle down.”

Her eyes widened. “You asked him that already?”

“Yep. I figured it’s best for us to find out what we’re up against as soon as we can. And along the way in our conversation, I planted a few seeds.” He smiled down at the baby again and chucked her under her chin. “Wait and see. We’ll have a bunch of little ones like you running around here in no time.”

* * *

late that afternoon with an urgent request to meet after work, Tina had jumped at the chance. She needed the exercise to relieve her stress and the space from her family. Most of all, she needed to leave the hotel. Thanks to Cole, the home she had always loved suddenly seemed more like a prison. And he hadn’t even moved into the Hitching Post yet.

As if she could outrun her thoughts, she picked up her pace.

It took Ally a moment to catch up. “Guess who I saw today,” she said.

Thinking she meant Cole, Tina almost missed a step. But, no, her best friend wouldn’t tease her about him. “Your cute wrangler?”

Ally rolled her eyes. “I saw the wheels turning, Tina. You analyze the fun out of everything. But you’re right—and he’s cuter than ever.”

“And by my analysis of your grin, I’d say you finally got him to look your way.”

“Right again. I gave him the come-hither look, like in all those old movies my mama loves, and he couldn’t resist.” She batted her mascaraed lashes. “His name’s Stan, he’s from Dallas, and he’s working at Rollins Ranch.”


“For the season. Unless I can get him to change his mind.”

Would Cole change his mind about some things, too, now that he knew he had a child? She wondered how long he expected to keep his room at the hotel. How long he planned to work for Jed.

How long he would stay in town.

And she couldn’t help wondering whether he would make a genuine attempt to get close to Robbie.

“Hello?” Ally said.

She blinked. “Sorry. I’m just tired.”


She sighed. “And...Cole’s taking a room at the Hitching Post.”


She gave her friend an abbreviated version of what had happened over the past few days.

Ally came to a halt on the sidewalk. “
Now what are you going to do?”

“I have no idea yet. But keep moving,” she directed over her shoulder. She had tossed and turned all night. If she stood in one place, she might fall asleep on her feet.

“I don’t see him hanging around for very long,” Ally said in that uncanny way she sometimes had of reading Tina’s mind. “After all, he already left once before. Why don’t you just wait him out? Maybe if you don’t make a big deal over him with Robbie, he’ll disappear again.
you want him to disappear, that is... Do you?”

“I don’t know.” She looked down Canyon Road to the red-tinged mountains in the distance. Except for college classes and licensing exams, she’d rarely gone beyond Cowboy Creek’s town limits. In the past five years, Cole hadn’t ventured back over the line. No matter his situation at the moment, what were the chances he would want to live here permanently? “I have no idea what his plans are.” She sighed. “Part of me hopes he’ll stay for Robbie’s sake. I don’t want my son growing up without a daddy.”

“Like you did.”

“Like I did,” she agreed.

And part of her hoped Cole would stay...for reasons that, as analytical as she might be, she couldn’t seem to figure out. Those reasons were too hazy to explain to Ally. Too complicated even for her to think about right now.

Deliberately, she changed the subject and told Ally about the arrival of her cousins.

“Bet your
’s happy. It’s been a while. What’s going on with them?”

“Jane’s busy and out of the country half the time. And Andi’s still with her in-laws in Scottsdale. She’s had the baby, a beautiful little girl.”

“Did she lose her flat stomach?”

“No. She’s already back to her prepregnancy shape.”

“Humph.” Ally race-walked a few feet ahead, then slowed down again. “Skinny little rich brat.”

“Stop, Ally. Those days are over. You can’t keep calling her that just because we’ve got trouble watching our weight.”

The only thing I watch is my mama’s burritos—when I’m eating them.”

Tina laughed. “Sure. And too many goodies from in
” Ally had slowed again, this time on the sidewalk in front of SugarPie’s. Tina grabbed her by the elbow and propelled her past the bakery.

“Oh, all right,” Ally said. “Besides, who’s got trouble? You know I like that old saying, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” And she always did. This afternoon, she wore a tie-dyed leotard with red micro-minishorts—and of course, her purple running shoes. “I’m sorry.”

She had said the words so solemnly, Tina stared at her in confusion.

“I feel terrible about Andi losing her husband. You know I do.” Ally shrugged. “But other than that, really, why are you worrying over what I say about those girls? Growing up, they wouldn’t give you the time of day—even when they wore all those fancy watches you liked so much.”

“One watch each, Ally. It was the fourteen necklaces and bracelets I coveted.”

“Don’t be such an accountant.”

Ally smiled to take out the sting. Tina hadn’t felt one. She was used to her friend’s teasing about her job.

Yet Ally’s comment had also hit a serious note.

Two years younger, Tina had always looked up to her cousins. When their families came to the ranch for vacations, Andi and Jane had brought the latest clothes, which she had no money of her own to buy back then. They’d worn makeup, which she never used. They had both been so slim, sophisticated and beautiful, Jane with her black hair against milk-white skin and Andi with a princess’s blond hair and blue eyes.

They had always been closer to each other than they ever had been to her, though she was Jed’s granddaughter, too... The illegitimate daughter of his son and the hotel cook’s daughter. As a result, Jane and Andi had always made her feel second-best.

Jed, oblivious to all that years ago, now expected her to work with them. And she would. She had grown up and gotten over her childhood feelings, even if uncomfortable memories sometimes resurfaced.

She had experienced that more than she’d wanted to this week.

“Look,” Ally said, “don’t let those women get you down. They’ll be gone soon, anyway, won’t they?”

She nodded. “Yes. They’re only staying a week or two. But they’ll be back to help Jed. Eventually.” She explained Jed’s plans to revitalize the Hitching Post. “Meanwhile, Andi’s going to talk to a few friends about wedding planners. Jane’s job keeps her on the run, but when we’re ready, she’s going to set up a website.” She took a deep breath. “And since I’m the one with the accounting degrees, I’m taking care of the first phase. Financing for the renovations.”


Ally came to a halt once again. This time, Tina didn’t prod her. Instead, she stopped and stared at the building beside them. The bookstore was one of her favorite places to spend time when she came to town. The store’s front window currently held a display of children’s classics, every one of which she knew nearly by heart. Every one of which she had planned to read to
of her and Cole’s children.

Ally rested her hand on her shoulder and said just the words Tina had hoped she wouldn’t say. “But...the hotel...your home...”

She shrugged. “That doesn’t matter.”

Ally blew out an exasperated breath. “Because those girls want to get the place all fancied up.”

“No, because Jed wants it that way.”

“But this isn’t right
I know you don’t want anybody making changes to the hotel.”

“That doesn’t matter, either. These are Jed’s dreams.”

Her own dreams, the ones she hadn’t been able to share even with Ally, had slipped away. She had done nothing to try to catch them. She shouldn’t have wished for things that could never be hers in the first place.

She shouldn’t wish for anything now.

* * *


, Cole helped unpack boxes while she put her son’s clothes away in his closet. He watched her gaze go yet again to the bedside table and the clown with the clock in its stomach.

Finally unable to contain his irritation, he muttered, “I can take a run to the L-G Store and pick up a half gallon of ice cream.”

Again, she looked at the clock. “Let’s wait awhile. It’s early yet. Terry promised he’d take Scott to the Big Dipper tonight.”

“And how many promises has he broken in the boy’s lifetime?”

“Plenty,” she admitted. She turned back to the closet.

He opened a few more packing boxes and went back to the subject of his previous thoughts. Tina. He had decided to stay at the Hitching Post to see the child, not her. Then why couldn’t he get her out of his mind?

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“Neither do I,” he said before he could catch himself. He looked up at Layne, who stood in the bedroom doorway looking at him, her expression puzzled.
Time to improvise.
“I don’t understand how one child not even five years old yet could wind up with so many clothes.”

Other books

King's Test by Margaret Weis
Dreamstrider by Lindsay Smith
Captured Shadows by Richard Rider
More William by Richmal Crompton
Beet by Roger Rosenblatt Copyright 2016 - 2024